by Jacob Miller-Arsenault, for the Community News Service
Jacob Miller-Arsenault reported this story on assignment from the Winooski News. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.
The floors shine with a newly restored gleam, the foyer glistens in the lingering sunlight and the ceilings are so high the roof seems almost nonexistent. What looks like a new state-of-the-art shopping mall is actually the newly constructed home of Winooski schools.
The city school district’s multimillion-dollar capital project has been in the works for multiple years, and now that it’s finally done, students have started school this year with fresh facilities that district leaders hope will be an upgrade for students for years to come.
In addition to the redone lobby, new performing arts center and new gymnasium, students can now use new common areas at the heart of each designated school in the building, with big, wide-open classrooms branching off from them.
The spaces are designed to give students a place to hang out between classes while also allowing for small group work or one-on-one meetings between staff and students.
“We’re starting to figure out how to gather in all these different spaces and use them to really support the feeling and the mood and the learning that needs to happen at that time,” said middle and high school co-principal Kate Grodin.
The completed renovations began in August 2020, originally funded by a $57.8 million dollar federal loan. The district building had insulation issues, an outdated air system and a lighting that probably wasn’t up to code, officials said. The cost later went down to a $55 million loan to be paid back over 30 years.
The finished project may also bring students a new sense of normalcy. With three years of renovations, plus the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, “everything’s been temporary,” said Grodin.
For a while, she said, it was hard for the school to find its way. But school leaders see this as a reset.
“We really feel like we’re building something now culturally within the building, not just the actual physical building itself,” Grodin said.
Part of that new approach is increased transparency in proficiency-based learning, which emphasizes building students’ skills, rather than rote memorization. The district wants to “allow all stakeholders, students, families and teachers to understand where they are in the learning process,” said Jean Berthiaume, the other co-principal of the middle and high schools.
The district plans to better equip teachers to identify clear standards, or as they are better known, “performance indicators,” so students “can appreciate where they are and are not always dependent on an adult telling them where they are,” Berthiaume said.
School leaders hope the renovations will be a proud sight for alumni, too. One way that starts? Compiling art, trophies, achievements — whatever — and making sure people see it. The renovations have left the school with a lot of white wall space, and officials plan to fill it with items that celebrate the school.
Winooski boasts the only school district in the state where most students are people of color, and school leaders are prioritizing it. Items such as the “Periodic Table of Black Excellence” displayed on one wall in the elementary school reflect that commitment.
Self-described “thrilled citizen” Leon Wheeler said it “says a lot about the community that they supported this,” referring to the project’s multiyear journey to reach completion.